This is part two of a series about the hidden goblin problem in RPGs. Goblin illustration above by Tony Diterlizzi, from the 1994 Monstrous Manual. Now, where were we…
While playing Dungeons & Dragons, the DM mentions a goblin. The players forget about it. What does the DM do next?
As any fule no, the correct answer is “whatever seems right, then keep playing”. But later, after the game is done, while you’re clearing away the empty hummus bowl and the celery and carrot crumbs, you have time to reflect. What exactly did you do?
“The goblin runs away, and that’s the end of it. There’s nothing to stop him putting some distance on the adventurers, so he is out of the picture. As soon as he’s gone, I forget about him and get on with the rest of the game.”
Call this a spotlight technique. As GM, you train an imaginary spotlight on the dungeon map, centred on the adventurers. Everything that falls in that circle of light, you track as you play. As soon as something falls out of that circle, forget about it.
“The goblin runs away, and there are consequences. I don’t care about the specifics – it would be too much effort to work things out in that detail – so I abstract it by making twice as many wandering monster checks for the next few hours.”
Call this a ripple technique. As GM, you imagine the escaping goblin as a ripple spreading across the surface of a pond, making a small but consequential difference to the whole environment. Wherever the player characters go, they will encounter the effect of this ripple.
“The goblin runs away, down the hall and into the wizard’s quarters. He hides under the wizard’s bed. I should roll to see if the wizard is there… Yes, he’s in his lab, which the goblin runs through. He’s probably making a potion if he’s in the lab, so he’ll be grumpy at the interruption, and he’ll interrogate the goblin. The goblin will tell all, so I guess the wizard will send his imp out with some lizardmen to hunt for the adventurers…”
Call this a billiard ball technique. As GM, you imagine the goblin as a billiard ball, rolling across the green felt. If that billiard ball collides with other balls, you now track where they move and see if they collide with anything, and so on until the whole table comes to rest.
“The goblin runs and hides among the statues in the next room… Okay, the adventurers are taking a bit of time searching that room, so the goblin probably decides it’s safe to move and goes to see the wizard… Now the adventurers are getting ready to leave the room again, that’s probably enough time for the goblin to knock on the wizard’s door and be admitted…”
Call this a juggling technique. As GM, you keep making choices for the goblin, even if they happen far out of view of the adventurers. Depending on what happens, the goblin’s actions might influence the adventure ahead in all kinds of unexpected and unpredictable ways.
Of course, you can only keep so many balls in the air. When you’re tracking a goblin and a wizard and an owl bear and a rival adventuring group, you’ll be overloaded, so you can let the weak little goblin fade into the background then.
“The goblin runs away and that’s all I need to know for now. At the end of the session I’ll think about how that goblin, and everything else that happened, might change the dungeon. Then I’ll go through and update it. Maybe I’ll add a trap to the map somewhere, set up by that goblin of course. And I might add the goblin to the wandering monster table too…”
Call this an update pass technique. As GM, the fate of an individual goblin isn’t terribly important. What matters is keeping the dungeon as a whole interesting and responsive, and the best time to think about that is between play sessions. This can be considered part of “restocking the dungeon”, as described in the game rules.
“They don’t remember that I said there was a goblin, so as far as I’m concerned it’s no harm, no foul. I’m not going to mention it again. On with the game!”
Call this a retcon technique. As GM, the words you said before only matter in terms of how they got you to the present moment. There is no true dungeon with a goblin in it, there’s only stuff you and the group are saying to each other, and a goblin is boring and not useful. Forget about anything that falls out of the conversation; by definition it is unimportant.
Card up the sleeve
“The goblin runs away, and now he’s something I can use. Later on if I want to throw a spanner in the works I can decide the goblin set a trap, or warned the dragon, or whatever will make their lives difficult and exciting. When that moment comes I’ll know what the goblin’s been up to since he ran away!”
Call this a card up the sleeve technique. As GM, you can hold the goblin’s escape in reserve as a piece of fiction with unknown consequences. When an opportune moment arrives, you can play this card and decide on the consequences. In a sense the goblin is a free excuse to make an upcoming situation extra tricky for the adventurers.
Fiat vs. chance
All of these techniques – and I’m sure there are plenty others – will do the job. If you’re a player in the game, you probably won’t even know which one is being used! The DM chooses their way of handling the situation, and then they do it, and it all happens invisibly. But just because it isn’t visible doesn’t mean it isn’t important!
These techniques don’t entirely solve the hidden goblin problem by themselves. Most of them give the DM some secret work to do. Sometimes the DM must determine a sequence of events within the dungeon; sometimes they must produce a final position for the dungeon’s inhabitants. They have to do this work in secret, away from the normal conversational exchange of play. Does the goblin run in fear, or spy on the adventurers? Does the goblin make it to safety, or is it found by the roaming lizardkin? Does the goblin know the wizard will be a powerful ally, or is it too cautious of such magic?
These determinations can be dealt with by means of chance – the DM can make a morale check for the goblin’s courage, or make a wandering monster check to see if it is found by the lizardkin, or flip a coin to see if the goblin knows to approach the wizard.
They can also be resolved through simple fiat – the DM simply chooses what happens based on their sense of fairness, or of verisimilitude, or of dramatic excitement.
Some techniques lend themselves more towards fiat, some more towards chance. Most techniques can be used with both. So, which to use?
Fiat is faster of course, but it can make the DM feel like they are being too kind, or too cruel, or too convenient, or any number of other doubts. Chance feels cleaner, like the result is innocent of any bias, but this is partly an illusion – unless there are rules already in the game that fit the situation, the DM is deciding what probabilities to assign, which is ultimately another expression of fiat.
Dungeons & Dragons is silent on which way the DM should lean, and what the consequences are for tipping one way or the other. It has been so since the original 1974 edition of the rules, and remains just as tight-lipped in the 5th edition rules from 2015.
As with choosing a technique, figuring out a balance between chance and fiat is handed over to each Dungeon Master to negotiate on their own.
A lot of fuss over a hidden goblin
Well this is all very good and interesting, but where does it get us? After all, a hidden goblin is still just a goblin. DMs have been making their own way through this alleged “problem” since the dawn of roleplaying games, and no-one’s ever made a fuss about it before now. Why, in the end, should anyone care?
Let’s take a look at how this can influence play in the next instalment, when we’ll take a close look at the most infamous hidden goblin in all of Dungeons & Dragons. Hint: he’s not a goblin. Hint 2: he lives in a castle. Hint 3: he has very pointy teeth…